On the heels of Hurricane Harvey Trump cut a deal with Democrats on relief and the debt ceiling, while earlier repealing protections for young immigrants
In a week bookended by hurricanes, Donald Trump repealed an Obama-era program to protect young immigrants, floated multiple responses to the North Korea nuclear threat and tried to whip up support for tax reform. He also cut an unexpected deal with Democratic leaders in congress to combine a Hurricane Harvey relief package with raising the debt ceiling and funding the government for three months.
Amid reports that three key aides – defence secretary James Mattis, chief of staff John Kelly, and secretary of state Rex Tillerson – were clinging on to office out of a sense of duty despite their qualms about their boss, Trump prepared to get his presidency back on track as Congress returned from its summer break. The debt limit, major tax reform, government funding to avoid a shutdown and recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey in Texas were all on their plate.
On Saturday Trump and his wife Melania returned to Texas, noting as he met families at a storm shelter in Houston: “As tough as this was, it’s been a wonderful thing, I think, even for the country to watch it and for the world to watch. It’s been beautiful.” In remarks that some saw as inappropriately ebullient, he shouted to reporters: “Have a good time, everybody!”
His good mood was spoiled overnight when North Korea exploded its biggest nuclear bomb yet, deepening the most serious foreign policy challenge his administration faces. Trump posted a series of early morning tweets, chiding North Korea, accusing South Korea of appeasement, and claiming – in the passive-aggressive style he reserves for messages to Beijing – that the test of an apparent hydrogen bomb was an “embarrassment” to China, “which is trying to help but with little success”.
During a trip to church, the president was asked whether he would attack North Korea. “We’ll see,” he replied. Mattis expanded this statement later, telling the press at the White House that any threat to the US or its allies would be met with a “massive military response” and adding: “We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea,” but “we have many options to do so”.
Trump later weighed in with a threat – widely seen as unrealistic – to “stop all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. In 2016, the US imported $463bn worth of goods from China, including computer goods, clothing, TV and video equipment, and toys.
In Russia news, Adam Schiff, a leading member of a congressional intelligence committee, threatened to subpoena the White House in order to obtain a draft letter that Trump reportedly wanted to send to James Comey when he fired him as FBI chief.
And late on Sunday night, reports emerged that Trump had decided to scrap the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) program – which gave work permits to 800,000 people brought to the US without documents as children – but would give Congress up to six months to find a legislative alternative. The decision was set be announced on Tuesday.
On Labor Day, the letter Barack Obama had left his successor when he vacated the White House was published by CNN. The letter – either patronising or remarkably prescient depending on your point of view – warned Trump to uphold the rule of law and not undermine the “international order”. Trump himself seemed to take it well at the time, calling it “beautiful” in January and saying he would cherish it.
Trump approved his most controversial immigration measure since his first, failed attempt at a travel ban in January, terminating the Obama-era program that protects the young immigrants known as Dreamers from deportation.
Daca will be phased out by 5 March 2018, with Trump attempting to throw the issue to Congress, telling legislators they had six months to enact new protections for Dreamers through legislation.
The timing was curious. It appeared Trump had allowed himself to be bounced into a decision now by a group of anti-immigration Republican attorneys general who were threatening to sue him. US attorney general Jeff Sessions had apparently told Trump he couldn’t defend the policy against such a suit. That seemed an arguable point, and it was perhaps a sign of Trump’s weakness politically that he was unable to put pressure on the state AGs to drop their suit.
Trump himself seemed conflicted over the fate of the Dreamers, having frequently made mawkish statements about “loving” them since the election and implied they would be safe.
Whatever his qualms, he decided to end the program – but notably sent Sessions out to announce the decision instead of doing it himself, with the attorney general delivering a hard-edged speech full of phrases such as “mostly-adult illegal aliens”.
Trump’s attempt to force Congress to deal with the problem he had just created also seemed unlikely to succeed. Legislators have tried and failed to pass protection for Dreamers for 16 years. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell did not mention Daca when he laid out his numerous legislative goals on Tuesday. There was some speculation that what Trump really wanted was to forge some kind of grand bargain on immigration, bullying rightwingers in Congress into voting for Daca and liberals into voting for the wall with Mexico.
By Tuesday evening, Trump had muddied the waters further, posting a tweet saying that if Congress did not come up with a legislative solution, he would “revisit this issue”. This statement seemed to undermine not only any legislative strategy he might have had, but also his whole argument for scrapping Daca, which was that Congress should deal with this aspect of immigration, not the president. For the 800,000 Dreamers plunged into legal limbo, it meant further uncertainty about their lives in the US.
Obama made a rare intervention to call Trump’s decision cruel and wrong.
As 15 states and the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit challenging Trump’s Daca repeal, Paul Ryan, the most senior Republican in Congress, claimed the Dreamers could “rest easy”, saying legislators would figure out a way to regularise their status over the next six months.
On Air Force One before a flight to North Dakota for a speech on tax reform, the president was asked whether he had sent mixed signals over Daca. “No mixed signal at all,” he said. “Congress, I really believe, wants to take care of this situation.”
Asked specifically about his Twitter pledge to “revisit” the issue, he said: “I have a feeling that’s not going to be necessary … I think Congress really wants to do this.”
Trump met earlier in the Oval Office with Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and Democratic Congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. Referring to the Democrats but not to their Republican counterparts, he said: “Chuck and Nancy would like to see something happen, and so do I.”
Trump overruled congressional Republicans and his treasury secretary and cut a three-month deal with the opposition party to fund the government and raise the US borrowing limit, combining those measures with an agreement to send aid to the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Senate Republicans overcame their nausea to approve a deal Trump struck with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling and provide Harvey relief. But Republicans wondered just how bipartisan Trump was meaning to get. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said that Trump had told her he would sign legislation to restore protections for young immigrants which he had removed earlier in the week.
Trump took a decidedly more restrained tone than usual on the topic of North Korea during a Thursday press conference, saying “nothing’s inevitable” and that he “would prefer not going the route of military”. Trump added that “military action would certainly be an option” to deal with the crisis.
Donald Trump Jr submitted testimony to the senate judiciary committee, including an explanation of why he took a meeting with Russian operatives at Trump Tower. Trump Jr suggested that he wanted that information as a concerned citizen, not as a campaign operative.
“To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications of a presidential candidate, I believed that I should at least hear them out,” Trump Jr told Congress in a statement. “Depending on what, if any, information they had, I could then consult with counsel to make an informed decision as to whether to give it further consideration.”
After the interview, Democratic senator Chris Coons, who attended, pointed out to reporters the section of federal law establishing that “false statements to Congress are criminal”.
Trump began the day by urging Republicans to focus on tax reform. To try again to repeal Barack Obama’s health care law, Trump suggested, would be a “Republican death wish”.
The White House spent much of the day messaging on Hurricane Irma, which was blasting through the Caribbean with Miami in the crosshairs. Trump warned of “a storm of absolutely historic, destructive potential”.
Despite grumbling about a deal Trump had cut with Democrats to provide Harvey relief and raise the debt ceiling, Republicans in the House voted to approve it with a strong majority. Ninety Republicans voted against the bill.
But when the White House pitched the deal before the vote, dissenters booed. Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin was reportedly hissed at after he ducked out early, saying, “Vote for the debt ceiling for me.” At the end of the day, Trump was to depart for a weekend at Camp David.
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